By Chris Frost
Oxnard-- The INCO (Inter Neighborhood Council) welcomed Oxnard City Manager Alex Nguyen to its meeting Feb. 5, as the group hosted a candidate forum, followed by a presentation on Measure B, the Oxnard Accountability and Ethics Act which is on the upcoming ballot.
Before the meeting, Moving Oxnard Forward Leaders Aaron Starr and Alicia Percell had pamphlets outlining their issues with Measure B.
The duo got approval for their ballot initiatives, and they are currently in litigation with the city over them, with the exception of permit simplicity, which implements a program that will enable the city to issue permits in a single day, making it easier for business owners to bring higher-paying jobs to Oxnard and for homeowners to improve their homes. Similar programs have been successful in other cities.
The term limits initiative was adopted by the council but can be negated if Measure B passes.
Measure B, passed by the Oxnard City Council on Oct. 15, prohibits elected officials and planning commissioners from accepting gifts from lobbyists or city contractors and imposes, for the first time in Oxnard, contribution limits to the Mayor, City Council and other candidates running for an elected office. It provides transparency by posting all high-value City contracts and monthly financial reports on the city's website for public review. It establishes a three-term limit for the City Council and Mayor and changes the Mayor's term from two to four years, to be consistent with the City Council.
Oxnard City Manager outlined Measure B and gave the crowd some insight from the city manager's perspective about why it is essential.
After he applied for the city manager's position 18 months ago, Nguyen started to research the city, like any other candidate, and said lots of information was available, which was good news, but much of it was bad.
He brought a compilation of investigations and audit findings to the forum, and those started in 2010 and went on for five years.
He pointed out that the problems did not materialize during the assessments and investigations; the issues had been going on for years.
They were legacy and organizational problems, he said, along with ethical leadership and management problems.
"Part of the process the city has been undergoing since then has been struggling year-after-year to make improvements," he said. "This represents one more step towards fixing these legacy problems."
Prohibit elected officials from accepting gifts from lobbyists and contractors
Nguyen said this part of Measure B makes it clear what Oxnard's ethical standards are if someone wants to do business in the city.
"It prevents the situation where anyone is beholden to someone else because they gave them gifts or big donations," he said. "It specifically prevents people from seeking contracts or gaining favors through gifts."
He cited some examples from the District Attorney's Office and said close relationships existed between several city officials and private individuals conducting multi-million-dollar transactions with the city.
"There were several instances of international travel by officials aboard one company's private aircraft," he said. "Companies affiliated with the private individuals made significant profits from transactions with the city."
To be fair, he said there was no evidence the officials had any direct financial interest in the questioned transaction.
"The evidence does not establish criminal conflicts of interest related to the multi-million-dollar transactions examined," he said. "What that means is although there were these relationships, there was no individual direct personal financial gain. It became obvious through this investigation that accepting gifts from companies doing business with the city was fairly common among city officials."
Included in the list of gifts meant golf, fancy meals, private flights to Cabo, Napa, and more fancy meals.
"There were Los Angeles Lakers games, including a limo drive," Nguyen said. "More meals, more golf, Dodgers games, Broadway shows, and another Dodgers game. The good news is that none of these elected officials or top city officials are still with us."
On the day after one of the council members returned from a trip to Mexico, he said that person voted to approve the Sturgis Road Building from Foxborough Park Incorporated, a Huberman affiliated company, which was a multi-million-dollar purchase.
"That's why this matters to the city manager's profession," he said. "It's difficult enough to do my job in the most transparent way possible. But if people are allowed to give these kinds of gifts, there's not a lot that I can do when this stuff is happening behind my back and around me."
Measure B does not impact any resident's ability to contact an elected official, and residents can still express their opinions.
"What this means is you can't take them to a Broadway show," he said. "As much as anyone may think that's okay."
Contribution limits for candidates running for elected office
Nguyen said the limits remove the risk and perception that elected officials are beholden to their donors.
The State of California recently published that cities without campaign contribution limits; those candidates sometimes raise more than 40 percent of their total campaign funds from a single contributor.
"Think about that," he said. "That happens across the state. In recent years, there have been examples of $50,000, $100,000, and one case of a $244,000 contribution to candidates for local office from donors with business before that local government. Such massive campaign contributions create a serious risk of actual or perceived risk of corruption. That's based out of language in the state legislature's AB571."
He pointed out that Measure B doesn't restrict anyone's first amendment rights, but the city wants to set contribution limits.
"You can still make contributions to the candidate of your choice that you believe in," he said. "This is only about contribution limits. Everyone is still allowed to have independent expenditures for political communications, whether by individuals, corporations, non-profit corporations, labor unions, other associations, or loans to yourself, as long if you are a candidate."
Posting specific city contacts and financial reports on its website
The city is working to correct past problems with new financial reporting, Nguyen said, and the new interactive website will go beyond the state financial reporting requirements.
"Measure B, importantly to me, locks in this requirement," he said. "I refer back to these investigations and these audit findings. The first major audit revealed over 100 findings about our financial management issues. These are legacy problems that were here for a long time. They permeate into the organizational culture, and it takes time to fix these things."
In this instance, he said the administrative policies were not enough.
"If the voters vote this in, it cannot be undone by the next city manager or the next city council majority," he said. "This is the best practice for a high functioning city."
This part of Measure B does not limit any of the financial reporting by the city, Nguyen said, but compliments the state requirements, and the city's recently passed Sunshine Ordinance.
This part of Measure B sets term limits at three, instead of two terms, and he said it allows the council members to gain experience and run for Mayor.
Nguyen said what it doesn't do is protect incumbents.
"Ultimately, it's up to the voters whether to decide if you want to limit your elected officials to two or three terms in office," he said. "By the way, not every elected person survives even one term in office. There are often times when the voters will vote that person out."
Summing up, he said Measure B does not give the city any additional powers, but it does provide the voters with the option to expand its ethics and protections, transparency, and fiscal accountability.
"It increases transparency by requiring additional opportunities for the public to monitor and review government spending and decision-making," he said. It updates term limits to three four-year terms and prohibits councilmembers and commissioners from accepting gifts from lobbyists or city contractors, which prevents special interest influence in decision making."
Measure B imposes campaign contribution limits for elected officials for the first time in Oxnard.
Campaign Contribution examples
Nguyen cited one example of a candidate who received money from outside of Oxnard in interesting amounts.
This candidate received over $1,000 from Louisiana, over $8,000 from Austin Texas, $200 from Kansas City Mo. In Calif, the same candidate received $12,000 and $6,500 from Woodland, $1,000 each from Brisbane, Camarillo, and Ojai, $5,000 from Woodland Hills, $9,900 and $5,000 from Corona and more.
"This is a lot of campaign money not from Oxnard used to influence city hall," he said. "These things, I believe, matter. When you think about the campaign donations over the last several years, this was almost $120,000 ($118,050), and 32 percent of that was donations higher than $750. That represents over $100,000 of those contributions."
Additionally, the candidate examined loaned himself over $300,000, Nguyen said, which is a lot of money from outside of Oxnard.
During public comments, Daniel Chavez Jr. said he received a flyer outlining the problems with Measure B, and the flyer said that limiting campaign contributions to a candidate is unconstitutional.
"The problems I have with this is, back in 2016, I thought it was wrong for a local race in the 19th largest city in Calif., to be having candidates spend upwards of $80,000," he said. "It's ridiculous for a local race."
He reviewed the term limit part of Measure B and said the flyer claims that it weakens term limits.
"Many of our elected officials from our state legislators, to our governor, to our county supervisors have a total of 12 years to serve," Chavez said. "I would prefer Measure B to be worked a little bit different where you have a combination of Mayor and council that would be your 12 years. Then, you would have to sit out a term, as opposed to saying 12 years as the Mayor and 12 years on the city council. There are already real terms limits in place. Unfortunately, there are not real term limits in place."
Alicia Percell said the term limits part of Measure B is an incumbent protection scheme in several ways. Because of time limits, she suggested that everyone view noonmeasureb.com for all the details.
"Much of it (Measure B) creates the illusion of real reform without any real substance under it," she said. "Restating what the existing municipal code is and putting it into the municipal code does not increase transparency. A large portion of it is blatantly unconstitutional. It violates at least three U.S. Supreme Court rulings. The courts are not going to look kindly on that."
Percell made a public records act request to find out how much the city spent on Measure B, so far, and said the city approved two no-bid contracts to hire a company to do a survey of public opinions and find out what "pretty buzz words" the public wants to hear.
"Then, they hired a marketing firm "The Right Language" to help sell Measure B," she said. "Voters in this room have probably already received two glossy mailers at taxpayer expense to campaign for Measure B. I don't yet know the cost of these. My question for the city manager is, how much of our taxpayer money do you plan to spend on this Measure?"
Nguyen said he would spend as little as necessary on Measure B.
"I believe that when you look at all the problems the city had, the legacy problems, it's important that we invest in correcting these problems," he said. "It makes no sense to me when people continually talk about how problematic the city is and continually fight efforts to correct it. The contracts that Miss Percell was eluding to; they were under my authority to do, and it's under my authority to sole source."